Congress' approval last week of $1.15 trillion of new spending and $622 billion of special tax breaks before most lawmakers had a chance to examine the fine print is a reminder that even with plenty of committee oversight the budget is a vast, unfathomable playground for waste and inexplicable government programs.
Government waste, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. One man's vital government investment or research project is another man's boondoggle or government rip-off. Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) burnished his reputation as a deficit hawk by publishing an annual "waste book" of the 100 most egregious government expenditures — a document that is now being emulated by his successor in the Senate, Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
"What I have learned from these experiences is Washington will never change," Coburn wrote in his final report documenting what he considered $25 billion of wasteful spending in practically every major department and agency. "But even if the politicians won't stop stupid spending, taxpayers always have the last word."
The targets are limitless, as Flake documents in his new Star Wars-inspired waste book, The Farce Awakens.
A $1 million project involving monkeys on a treadmill, another $1.2 million to assess the effects of microgravity on sheep, $110 million spent on constructing buildings left empty in Afghanistan, $300,000 for a cheese heritage center, $5 billion for unneeded data centers, and on and on.
"Despite the public ballyhooing over budget austerity, the government didn't come up short on outlandish ways to waste money in 2015," Flake wrote in his introduction. "Like the monkeys on the treadmill, Washington politicians also ran in place trading familiar arguments in the seemingly never ending match of budget brinksmanship. But the stare down over whether or not to increase spending didn't last long."
There is an embarrassment of riches to choose from in picking seven good examples of the most wasteful or ridiculous government spending in 2015, thanks to Flake, Lankford, and Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. And that means that any list will be highly subjective — and woefully incomplete. Still, some projects simply jump off the page and demand attention. Here are our choices:
1. The star-crossed F-35
Heading any list of wasteful government projects and boondoggles is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Years behind schedule and plagued with cost overruns and technical glitches, the effort has cost around $400 billion to date, making it the most expensive weapons effort in U.S. history. The program is expected to cost more than $1 trillion over its lifetime. But in the sprawling $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill approved by Congress recently, lawmakers boosted the Obama administration's original $11 billion request to buy 57 planes by another $1.3 billion. The cash infusion means the Pentagon will be able to buy an additional 11 fighters, with all three military services slated to get more F-35s.
2. Runaway farm subsidies
Two new agriculture income entitlement programs created as part of the 2014 farm bill to protect farmers from adverse shifts in prices seemed like a good idea at the time, given the relative stability of the commodities markets. But a senior Department of Agriculture official confirmed to Congress in September that the new programs — Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage — were proving to be far more costly than promised. Given a significant drop in commodity prices since passage of the legislation, USDA currently projects that the government will be on the hook for about $6.5 billion in 2014 crop payments, largely to corn producers. That would be almost $3 billion more than the original projection — or 73 percent higher.
3. Jazz playing robots
The Department of Defense complained until recently that it needed more operating funds, yet it managed to come up with $2 million to hire a team of musicians and researchers to develop robotic music computers to perform a trumpet solo and jam with human musicians. You heard that right. Jazz musician and academic Kelland Thomas is heading up a team of researchers at the University of Arizona, the University of Urbana-Champaign, and Oberlin College. Thomas says his goal is to build a computer system that can be hooked up to robots that can play instruments, and that can play with humans "in ways we recognize as improvisational and adaptive."
4. Another big sop to ethanol
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack created a $100 million program utilizing Commodity Credit Corporation funds to support the installation of ethanol blender pumps at gas stations that can handle high-blend ethanol fuels. Taxpayers already pay plenty to support the ethanol industry through a variety of subsidies and federal mandates requiring the use of biofuels. Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa — a major corn producing state — pushed his plan through in the face of opposition from Congress, which previously prohibited the Department of Agriculture from spending money for blender pumps.
5. Exploring the wonders of a koozie
Two students from the University of Washington were given a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate how a foam koozie keeps a can of cold beer cool on a hot day — findings that were published in Physics Today. University of Washington professor Dale Durran was quoted as saying, "Probably the most important thing a beer koozie does is not simply insulate the can but keep condensation from forming on the outside of it." Hmm. That scientific insight cost taxpayers more than $1 million.
6. DOE's uranium enrichment flop
A little known but costly Department of Energy project was closed down this year, but not before expending at least $280 million between 2012 and 2014 trying to develop a new commercial technology to enrich uranium fuel for use in nuclear power plants. From the beginning, the American Centrifuge Project was predicated on securing billions of dollars in government subsidies. But the project, based in Piketon, Ohio, was plagued by technological trouble and the federal government finally had to pull the plug in September. However, DOE is continuing to fund an offshoot of the research project that is run by Centrus Energy Corp., in Oakridge, Tennessee. Centrus announced last week that Congress had authorized a total of $100 million in continued funding for its operations "to maintain and advance American leadership in uranium enrichment technology."
7. World's most expensive training program
President Obama's plan to arm and train thousands of "moderate" Syrian rebels to help in an allied campaign to crush ISIS turned out to be an embarrassing failure and had to be disbanded. The original proposal was to supplement U.S. air strikes with roughly 3,000 opposition fighters on the ground who could help the allied forces defeat ISIS. But by the time the Pentagon decided to abandon the program in October, the government had vetted, trained and equipped only 145 fighters, including just 95 who had returned to Syria to fight. That worked out to cost of roughly $2 million per trainee. The Pentagon insists the cost per trainee was much lower when you discount the cost of weapons and ammunition still in storage.